A 16-year-old Laguna Niguel youth arrested in Saturday’s fatal shooting at the Dana Strand beach had been so fearful of victim Robert James Elliott that he began carrying a gun to school last week to defend himself, friends of the suspect said Sunday.
Although they said the teen-ager arrived at the crowded beach Saturday with his handgun and said, “I’m going to be a cowboy today,” few believed that he actually meant to pull the trigger on Elliott, 18, of Dana Point.
Many in the knots of somber surfers here Sunday ignored enticing waves, instead speaking in hushed tones, wondering whether they could have prevented the final confrontation between two well-known rivals.
“Everybody is like, well, God, what should we have done? What could we have done? We’re just, like, in a daze here,” said 20-year-old Jerry Yelvington of San Clemente, one of many regulars at this popular surfing beach.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigators released Elliott’s name Sunday and confirmed that he had been killed by a single gunshot to the chest in the 1 p.m. incident Saturday. But they shed no new light on the long-running dispute between Elliott and the 16-year-old junior from Dana Hills High School, whose name was withheld because of his age. He was being held at Juvenile Hall in Orange on suspicion of murder.
Friends and acquaintances of both teen-agers, however, said the two had been at odds for about two years. Both frequented Dana Strand, at the southern tip of Salt Creek Beach Park and just south of the exclusive Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
The most recent dispute, apparently, was over a broken window on Elliott’s truck, which the younger boy had smashed with a baseball bat a few weeks ago, friends said.
The two got into a fistfight over the broken window during an afternoon beer party at the same beach last Wednesday. Fellow surfers broke up that scuffle. But for the next two days, friends said, the younger boy was so fearful that he began taking a handgun with him to school, even showing it to a classmate who gave him rides to campus.
And on Saturday, friends said, the younger boy with flowing blond hair arrived at the strand, saying, “I’m going to be a cowboy today,” and making references to the late actor John Wayne.
A short time later, Elliott appeared on the bluff above the strand with a friend. Elliott, known as “Rob” or “Skinhead"--he had close-cropped hair and wore multiple earrings in one ear--walked toward the younger boy, who was seated on the beach with a group of friends, and demanded money for the broken window.
Witnesses said the younger boy pointed the handgun at Elliott and yelled: “Leave the beach or I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you if you come after me. I don’t want to kill you. Just leave!”
They said Elliott replied, “Just pay me for the window,” and taunted the youth as he continued forward.
At that point, friends recalled Sunday, the younger boy lowered the gun, said, “Oh man, forget this,” and began walking away.
Witnesses said Elliott yelled after him, “Hey . . . , I said, where’s my money?” then began chasing him the younger boy. Suddenly the younger boy stopped running, turned and pulled the trigger, they said.
The gun didn’t fire the first time, so the 16-year-old pulled the trigger again as he dropped to one knee, witnesses said.
“The guy kept coming up to him. Then he just shot him,” said a classmate of the suspect, who declined to give his name.
He and others said they couldn’t believe that their friend would have pulled the trigger, speculating he was frightened and didn’t realize what he was doing.
An 18-year-old Dana Point-area friend called the suspect “unpredictable. . . . He’s got a quick temper.” But he said the youth was “scared” by Elliott. “He didn’t know what to do.”
Elliott was described as boastful and aggressive by friends, who said he dropped out of San Clemente High School and took a proficiency exam to get a certificate. Anything he did, “he would do it the dangerous way,” said one friend who nonetheless described him as a “bro"--surfer lingo for good buddy.
Said Yelvington: “Rob Elliott was the kind of guy who would say to a guy with a gun, ‘Hey, you can’t hurt me.’ A guy who would probably get hurt just to tell his friends about it.”
As the groups of surfers huddled Sunday, seeming not to notice the balmy skies and 3- to 4-foot waves, they debated whether there would be any outbreak of hostilities among camps of friends loyal to each surfer.
Yelvington concluded that the tragic incident stemmed from a “personal vendetta” between the suspect and the dead teen-ager that unfortunately had mushroomed out of control.
Times staff writer Wendy Paulson contributed to this article.